Interview with Steve Brown, playwright and director
Steve talks about the première of his acclaimed inaugural production ‘City of Champions’ showing at London Theatre Workshop until 5th August.
Tell us a bit about the play?
‘City of Champions’ is set in 2010, in the city of Inglewood in Southwestern Los Angeles. The story deals with two former child superstars whose lives were derailed by early success, an excess of Hollywood hedonism as teenagers and abuse by industry people during their heyday.
One is married, sober and still working in the industry, although no longer an A-lister. The other is bankrupt, homeless and living at his friend’s house in the back garden guest room. He makes his money at public appearances, selling autographs and, privately, selling his belongings. He hasn’t worked in two years and, because of his numerous well-publicised trips to rehab over the years, he remains unemployable despite the fact that he is clean and sober. Finally, he gets the offer of a job which will bring him some much-needed money, but it would mean working with a director who preyed on him as a teenager. The story comes from how he deals with this offer, how it affects his relationships and how he takes control of the situation and makes the decisions that alter everyone’s futures.
What inspired you to write about such a challenging and sensitive subject matter?
I was inspired to write this by an interview film actor Corey Feldman gave in 2011 in which he stated that pedophilia was Hollywood’s biggest problem. He revealed that both he and his best friend and co-star, Corey Haim, had both been victims of Hollywood abuse. As a kid in the Eighties I grew up watching their films and had a great affection for them. The death of Corey Haim on 10th March 2010 (at the age of 38) had greatly affected me. To think he had endured abuse and that it contributed to his troubled life was heartbreaking; so I wanted to write about the bravery of individuals who are (to the public’s perception) brats, train wrecks and bad boys but who are, in reality, courageously fighting demons that the rest of the world is not aware of.
The characters in ‘City of Champions’ are deeply troubled but they are also incredibly brave. I very much wanted to show characters that were survivors rather than victims. These are two very funny, special men who have a shared past that occasionally casts a shadow over their lives but, otherwise, do not live lives that are completely coloured by their experiences. They represent hope and the promise that things really can get better over time.
’City of Champions’ has been developed through the LTW Theatre Lab. Give us a glimpse into the process of creating something from scratch.
The first draft of ‘City of Champions’ was written over the course of a week back in October 2011. Since then, it has been steadily and continuously worked on – a draft is finished, set aside for a few weeks and then I have returned to it with fresh eyes and an editing pen. Bringing ‘City of Champions’ to the LTW Theatre Lab quite late in the process made the job of getting it into performance shape much easier in that a workshop and public reading was held in early 2016.
I got to hear the play read by a group of talented actors and straight away I could hear the changes I needed to make. The workshop threw up a lot of ideas that came from seeing and hearing the actors bringing the characters to life and listening to their take on those characters. Getting feedback from the experienced cast was also helpful and I looked at certain areas on their recommendation. Presenting a read-through to an audience of experienced theatre practitioners and inviting their feedback – was also very valuable and I was able to take their feedback on board and, where necessary, make other adjustments. A second workshop and reading demonstrated that the changes I had made based on the first reading had not been unnecessary and were indeed improvements.
What has been the most challenging part of creating a new play for the stage?
The most challenging part of creating a new play is knowing when to cut things. This is a fictional piece and so audiences are not already informed about the characters. One has to share so much information with as little exposition as possible and that is very difficult. One has to find ways of getting the necessary information to the audience without just spelling it all out. In order for the audience to care about these characters, the dialogue needs to sound as real as possible; it’s important to be careful that not too much is cut from the dialogue or else it will not sound authentic. The play was built up and then gradually and carefully scaled back, removing the fat but still leaving flesh on the bones. The version of ‘City of Champions’ we are presenting is the 21st draft of the play.
’City of Champions’ is set in the town of Inglewood, outside of Hollywood, and yet speaks about the movie-making business of the nineteen-eighties with such clarity. What kind of research did you undertake to create the world of ‘City of Champions’?
The Eighties was a decade when so many films were made for young people starring young people. Essentially I set out to write an eighties film but set in the present and commenting on that decade. While writing this play, I’ve listened to eighties music playing in the background and eighties movies playing on the TV so that, when I look up from the keyboard, I am reminded of what I’m writing about. As serious as the story and the subject is, it is very much in the mould of an eighties film. Although our central characters are adults, they are still just big teenagers who, like the kids in many eighties movies, have been placed in a situation by thoughtless, harmful or ineffectual ‘grown-ups’ and find they have to fend for themselves, look after each other and resolve their situation with humour, courage and without the help of adults.
Why should we come to see ‘City of Champions’?
‘City of Champions’ is more than an homage, although it is very definitely a personal love letter to any of the troubled child stars that Hollywood has created. A very impressive cast has been assembled to bring this story to life and between them they have created characters that are funny, unique, deeply moving, troubling and totally believable. Their dedication to the project has elevated the material into something profoundly moving. It has a lot to say about responsibility, the need to look out for the vulnerable and how important love is at any age. The audience is in for a night that will entertain, be emotional and will leave them thinking long and hard about the characters.
‘City of Champions’ runs until this Saturday, 5th August, at London Theatre Workshop, 88 Gracechurch Street, Leadenhall Market (above the New Moon pub) EC3V 0DN. (Nearest Tube: Monument). Not suitable for children. Strong language and adult themes.
Tickets cost £15 and can be purchased online: http://londontheatreworkshop.co.uk/city-of-champions/